The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Animal Rights

Do animals have rights? If so, are these rights, whatever they might be, coequal with those of humans? If not, what can we say about them?

The idea that animals have Natural Rights might seem absurd to many, and some of the comments below might seem like weak attempts at satire. But if we are talking about natural rights, we are talking about things that derive from Nature itself, and we must admit that animals are as much a part of Nature as human beings. If human beings have rights that derive from Nature, is it not possible that animals have similarly "derived rights"? These questions are useful, because contemplating the natural rights of animals may give us a different perspective on our own rights and will certainly provide a solid basis for determining what are, or should be, the rights of animals, if indeed they do have rights.

There are those who believe that only individuals have rights, that not even groups of individuals, such as "a people" or "a nation," have distinguishable rights apart from the rights of the individuals that compose the group. There is even a statement by Jefferson that seems to support this position.

    "What is true of every member of the society, individually, is true of them all collectively; since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789.

But that interpretation takes the quote out of context. Jefferson was here speaking of the right to contract debts that must be paid by later generations. He argued that no individual has the right to contract debts that must be paid by some member of a future generation. Thus, he is saying that the rights of the whole cannot be greater than -- cannot increase beyond -- the sum of the rights of the individuals. In other words, if individuals have not the right to force later generations into debt, society as a whole cannot acquire that right. He is not stating as an abstract dogma that the rights of society are always indistinguishable from the sum of the rights of each individual. We know from many other passages in his writings that Jefferson recognized in certain groups rights that were not the function of individuals. He spoke often of the natural rights of not only individuals, but people, nations, States, Congresses, ships in distress, and just about anything involving groups of persons that function in the natural world.

    "We view this as seizing the rights of the States... uniting in support of the laws and the rights of their country... a common interest in the rights of peaceable nations... atrocious violations of the rights of nations... rights of the rest of the world remaining at peace... Every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact... Each house of Congress possesses [the] natural right of governing itself... Every nation has of natural right, entirely and exclusively, all the jurisdiction which may be rightfully exercised in the territory it occupies."

For Jefferson, any grouping of persons has natural rights that derive from the nature of the group and its self-evident needs in order to exist as a group. And these are rights that the group are entitled to exercise as a group, but the individual members have no right to exercise in their capacity as individuals. For example, Jefferson clearly identified any number of rights of "the nation" that cannot be exercised by individuals in their capacity as individuals, the most obvious of which is waging war.

    "That individuals should undertake to wage private war, independently of the authority of their country, cannot be permitted in a well-ordered society." --Thomas Jefferson: 4th Annual Message, 1804.

Waging war is only one of any number of activities in which a group may have a right to engage, but not an individual.

    The Source of Natural Rights

Natural rights derive not from some sophistic dogma that attaches uniquely to man, but from the very fact of natural existence itself. As explained in another essay, Natural Rights are derived from a consideration of what naturally would follow from, what is naturally implied by, a set of existential circumstances. As a simple illustration, it is like saying, "Because you have legs, that means you have the natural right to walk." Natural Rights are a common-sense (self-evident) logical outcome resulting from simple observation.

Hence, we are compelled to recognize that natural rights come from the nature of things and from an entity's function in the natural order, not from doctrines or theories or political persons or bodies or any other self-appointed source. And this suggests further that animals -- as much a part of Nature as is man -- must surely have some natural rights, just as man has natural rights. We would not expect their rights to be the same as man's, of course. But we would expect them to have rights derived from the circumstances of their existence in Nature. In fact, we are compelled to ask, How can man claim to have rights derived from Nature if animals do not have similarly derived rights, since they are as much a part of nature as man?

Natural Rights serve as a guide to proper action, to the way the possessor of rights should be treated. These rights have meaning only to man, because only man of all the animals has the power of moral choice. Hence, we can say that natural rights have meaning only to a being that has moral choice. If animals have rights, those rights exert a claim on man, not on other animals, just as the natural rights of humans exert a claim on other humans, not on other animals. We can further state that morality demands that man have the right to exercise all of his Natural Rights. As Jefferson wrote:

    "I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Danbury Baptists, 1802.

If man has a claim to all his natural rights, may not animals have the same claim? Given the reasonableness of the whole idea of Natural Rights, and the possibility that these rights may apply to animals, we are compelled further to ask to what extent do these rights exist? What kinds of rights enjoyed by man have counterparts in the animal world?

To begin with the obvious, we know that man himself is an animal. As Jefferson wrote,

    "Man [is] a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights and with an innate sense of justice." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823.

But does his entitlement to rights derive from the fact that he is an animal, or that he is a rational animal?

Actually, we know that man's rights derive from neither the fact that he is an animal NOR that he is a rational animal; they derive from the fact that man is a creature created by God, who created man endowed with these rights.

    "A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774.

    "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?" --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.

This is not a matter of religious dogma, of course. "The gift of God" means, in this context, that which was established by nature. In other words, man's rights come to him because of his natural place in creation, in the world of nature. "Derived from the laws of nature" and "the gift of God" thus has an equivalency in meaning, since God is conceived as the Author of Nature.

But does not an animal -- that is, a non-human animal -- also have a natural place in creation? Is not an animal just as much a part of the world of nature as is man? And if man was created by God and endowed with natural attributes, could not the same be said of animals?

Obviously, all of this is true, and we are forced to admit that animals are as much a part of Nature as man, and that if existence in Nature determines the meaning of Natural Rights, then Natural Rights in general should apply as well to animals as they do to man. If we begin with nature and how things are, we cannot lop off a major portion of nature and say that our conclusions do not apply except where we wish them to apply. Moreover, the same general connections between man and nature must also be recognized as existing between animals and nature.

Jefferson believed that man was not only a part of the natural order of things, but that his attributes were so designed as to facilitate his functioning in that natural order.

    "I believe... that [justice] is instinct and innate, that the moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing, or hearing; as a wise Creator must have seen to be necessary in an animal destined to live in society." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1816.

Hence, we may assume that an animal probably has instincts and innate characteristics that are as much a part of its constitution as hearing, seeing and its other functions. Moreover, these attributes are likewise necessary for these animals to live in the conditions in which they do indeed live.

Given these necessary similarities between man and his relations to Nature, and animals and their relation to Nature, we then may ask if these attributes lead to any reasonable conclusions regarding what we might call "Animal Rights." Do animals have any discernable Natural Rights simply as a result of their being a part of the natural order of things?

    What Rights do Animals Have?

It is easy for egocentric man to assume that he is the center of the universe, that neither animals nor the earth itself are anything other than things created to serve man in whatever way he deems proper. But Natural Rights philosophy teaches the reverse of that. The world outside man is not derived from man. Rather, man is himself a part of the natural world; the world is not "outside" him any more than he is outside it, and what he is derives from that mutual relationship with the earth. Natural rights do not proceed from man to the world of being, but rather from the world as it is to man as a part thereof.

We have considered elsewhere the natural rights of man, so we will not pursue that question any further here. But we must ask, Do animals have rights similar to man's rights, for example, to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"? How can we determine this?

Like man, animals were created to function in the natural world, but at a different level. Most of the animals eat one another, and this is a natural part of the world they live in. They might have a right to live and, consequently, to nourish themselves, but that right implies an inherent violation of the right to life of other animals. Therefore, for an animal, the right to life exists naturally against other members of his species but does not extend to other species, because that right includes, and often demands, the right to kill other living animals for food. In this single regard, man might even be viewed as inferior to the animals at times. As Jefferson noted,

    "In truth, I do not recollect in all the animal kingdom a single species but man which is eternally and systematically engaged in the destruction of its own species." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1797.

    "Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind; for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor." -- Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787.

Besides killing other animals for food, there obviously exists a natural right to kill other animals, including members of one's own species, in self-defense. For many animals as well as for man, this sometimes includes killing in defense of one's territory, when violations of one's territory is viewed as a threat to oneself.

If we acknowledge a natural right to kill other species for food and in self-defense, what can be said about killing other species for sport? There is no imperative in the right to life of man or animal that requires him or it to kill another animal for sport, even though there may be such an imperative to kill for food. According to Natural Rights, therefore, man would not seem to have any right to kill animals for sport.

All of these natural connections are observable in Nature. Some animals do seem to kill other animals for sport, and certainly man does, although primitive man generally does not. Animals can only follow their instincts; there is no court for "animal justice" between animals. But man is burdened with moral choice, and thus subject to moral responsibilities in his dealing with other men and with animals also. We therefore punish humans for their cruelty to animals, but we do not ordinarily hold animals responsible for their moral behavior as we do man, although there are some exceptions. Interestingly enough, we do "punish" animals that kill humans, even if they do so for food: we execute them.

As for liberty, it is clear that every animal was "born free." It was intended by nature to live and roam the earth at will, and not be confined to a cage or a zoo. Domesticated animals are a different case, and some of them seem to find their greatest fulfilment as animals in being servant to man. With cats, the question is often humorously posed: Who owns who? Cat lovers often describe themselves as being owned by their cat. Perhaps in the case of domesticated animals, we may look upon their natural right of liberty as...

    "This, like all other natural rights, may be abridged or modified in its exercise by their own consent." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Residence Bill, 1790.

Do animals have any right to the pursuit of happiness? We can answer that in the affirmative if we properly define what is the natural right to the pursuit of happiness for an animal, because it is Nature and the animals natural life that are the determining factors. Like a human being, an animal finds its greatest fulfillment (i.e., happiness) in being itself, what it was born to be, what every aspect of its nature testifies that it was meant to be, and being free to do whatever it must to be precisely that. In the case of an animal, this requires little more than life as already described and sufficient liberty to pursue its natural life. For an animal, life and liberty are sufficient to produce whatever "happiness" they are capable of enjoying.

    Animals in Conflict with Humans

Whereas animals may be said to have their own distinctive rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it must be recognized that there is one principle they do not share: All animals are NOT created equal. The lion, for example, is recognized in nature as the "king of the beasts." Even all animals of a given species are not created equal, although we say of man that all members of his species most definitely ARE created equal (in political rights). In fact, the inequality of species is built into their natural rights. Thus, a dog is never equal to man, and this inequality can be and is a function of the dog's experiencing his greatest potential, i.e., being a servant-companion to man. But within species, there are pecking orders, leaders of the pack, and other forms of domination and submission that are common, natural, and perhaps necessary for their survival. These characteristics are often found among groups of men also, but there it is neither natural nor, we have determined, just. Indeed, lifting man out of those autocratic forms of servile relationship, moving from lower, animal-like forms of oppression and dictatorship to higher, more democratic forms that respect individuals equally, could be viewed as the history of mankind. And this is a struggle that continues at various levels all over the earth even today.


Man, by his natural endowments, is indeed the ruler of the earth. All other animals are potentially subject to his will and domination. At the same time, this does not mean that man is free, under natural law, to do anything that he pleases to animals. The whole idea of Natural Rights demands that man must show reason and understanding in his administration of the earth; that he owes to the animal kingdom a certain respect for their existence that allows them to fulfill their destiny, just like he expects his society to be so ordered that he has respect for his existence and the opportunity to fulfill his own destiny. Whether for man or animal, these are all natural rights.

Thus is laid a background for considering the proper relationship of man to the animal kingdom, based on the very dynamics that we consider effective for viewing the proper relationship of man to man, and man to the world itself. Man is not, and should not be free to torture or destroy animals at will. How much further man should feel restricted by "animal rights" is a matter for debate. Working out exactly what should be national policy on specific issues can never be easy, nor can we expect that all will agree on the decisions, whatever they be. But it does seem certain that the Natural Rights philosophy offers a rational basis for determining what would be a progressive and reasonable approach to meeting and deciding these issues.


Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Front Page | Table of Contents

© 1997 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.